Having played out an unconvincing 1-0 victory against a poor Liechtenstein side last time out, Guus Hiddink will be looking for a vast improvement in his sides performance as Russia travel to Helsinki to take on Finland tonight.
The Sbornaja know that a win would have them snapping at the heels of Group 4 leaders Germany, whilst victory for Stuart Baxters’ Scandanavian side would see them leapfrog the Russians into second place, and stand them in good stead of qualifying for the first major tournament in their glory deprived history.
The presence of Andrei Arshavin represents the most outstanding threat that this Russian side has to offer, and the Finnish centre backs will have to be well and truly up for the battle to deal with him.
After finishing the 2008/09 season in scintilating form for his club side Arsenal, he’ll be keen to replicate this explosion of goals and creativity on the international stage where he has excelled throughout Russia’s qualification campaign for South Africa 2010.
His pace and sheer technical ability will cause problems for the Finland back line if he’s not muted early on in the contest, and provides the frontmen with the assurance that a point point through ball or a clinically navigated cross is never impossible.
Backing up the threat of Arshavin is long time Chelsea target Yuri Zhirkov. Since his break through onto the international scene, the CSKA Moscow wing back has been a key figure in the Russian attack with his dominating forward runs and efficacious work ethic.
Regarded in the same league as other offensively utilised full backs of world football such as Daniel Alves, the threat of Zhirkov cannot be ignored by the plucky Finns’ – particularly as his link up play on the left hand side provides solid foundations for many of the Sbornaja’s forays into enemy territory.
To deal with the fulminations of the Russian attack, the home team turn to one of the favourite sons of Finnish football: former Liverpool star and skipper Sami Hyypia.
The seven-time Finnish footballer of the year is the third most capped player in the home sides history, and he will be looking to summon all of his experience to aid the rear guard of a team who are yet to be conquered on home soil this campaign.
In attack, the hopes of a nation are pinned on a player widely regarded as the greatest footballing export to ever come out of Finland. Jari Litmananen may be 38 years old now, but his performance in the 2-0 defeat of Wales in Cardiff last time out has proved that age is no issue, as he demonstrated his eternal class by setting up the opening goal.
Guus Hiddink has returned from his interim spell in charge of Chelsea with yet another honour to add to his burdgeoning CV, but the Dutchman has returned in unassuming fashion to his task of being charged with the responsibility of taking Russia to the 2010 World Cup.
Typically respectful to his opposition, the FA Cup winning pioneer of this fluently attacking former Soviet Union side knows that his mission is far from over, and is under no illusion with regards to the consequences of defeat.
“On their home turf Finland are very strong and it will be very difficult to set the same pressure as in Moscow on them.” Hiddink said. “But I am sure this Russian team cannot simply play for a draw. It always plays openly and bravely, strives to score and win. That is our approach to football. It is the decisive game and only victory will let us compete for the ticket to World Cup 2010.”
As mentioned, the Finn’s are unbeaten at home and manager Stuart Baxter will point to his sides 3-3 draw with Germany at the beginning of their campaign to serve as a reminder that they can mix it with the big boys. However, if Russia can eradicate any lingering confidence issues that may still be hanging over them after their dismal effort in Liechtenstein, then Jussi Jaaskelainen can expect his goal to be peppered thoroughly throughout the night. Finland will once again show their resilience, but with Russia having a technical edge over their counterparts, expect Guus Hiddinks team to prevail.
Prediction: Finland 0 Russia 2